The Navajo Times comes of age - at six minutes past deadline

MARK Trahant, a razor blade in one hand and a narrow strip of galley proof in the other, shoots a quick glance out the window near the sloping work table at which he stands.

''I can see the propellers going on the plane,'' the youthful editor calls out to the half-dozen staffers in the cluttered newsroom housed in a ramshackle one-story building next to a dirt parking lot.

It is 9:06 p.m. on Monday, March 19 - six minutes past deadline for the Navajo Times.

Tonight the excitement is especially keen. Tuesday's paper marks the launching of the Navajo Times as a five-day-a-week paper - the first American Indian newspaper ever to publish daily.

At the airstrip across Highway 264, a chartered plane is waiting for 12 pieces of paper - the layout pages of the Tuesday-dated edition of the newspaper , which will be printed 140 miles away in Albuquerque, N.M., and airlifted back before dawn to this tribal headquarters town on the Navajo Indian Reservation.

The staff seems accustomed to the pace, and Mr. Trahant keeps them moving with a mixture of drive and good humor - answering ''Sears Roebuck'' when the phone interrupts him and throwing his head back in laughter when he finds the ''r'' missing from the word ''feature'' in a front-page headline.

The 25-year-old Times is not the first newspaper published by and for American Indians. That record stands with the Cherokee Phoenix, which began publishing in Georgia in 1828. The Times, however, is the largest, serving the 160,000 Navajos (about one-quarter of the entire Indian population of the United States) on a reservation roughly the size of West Virginia that sprawls across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

The Times has become something of a standard-bearer for the Indian news media. Begun by the tribe as a monthly with a focus on education, it soon settled into a hard-news weekly that closely reflects the views of the tribal administration. In the past, its efforts at editorial independence have been frequently quashed, usually through removal of editors who disagreed with the tribal chairman, the highest elected Navajo official.

With the appointment last year of Loren Tapahe as publisher and Trahant as editor, however, the paper (which reportedly lost $1.3 million between 1959 and 1983) moved toward a more independent line. Mr. Tapahe, a local businessman and one-time editor of the paper, is well known to Navajo community leaders. Trahant , a non-Navajo who describes himself as half French and half Shoshone-Bannock Indian, started a paper on a reservation in Idaho before going to Washington to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Carter administration.

Under this new team, the Times has moved nominally into the black, largely through newsstand sales to some 16,000 readers. It borrowed $400,000 from the tribe to buy new typesetting equipment and a rebuilt press (neither of which was in place when the daily was launched earlier this week). The staff was expanded and an office was opened in Tuba City, Ariz., at the western edge of the reservation. And finally, the the decision was made to go daily.

''To have it not be a daily bothers me,'' says Trahant, relaxing in his tattered desk-chair moments after the plane has left. ''I think we're a symbol of how money flows off the reservation,'' he explains, noting that many Indians now buy the daily Gallup (N.M.) Independent.

Trahant is clearly out to change that. The Times will be the first Indian paper to compete head-on with a border-town newspaper. Using wire-service stories, featuring columnists like Ellen Goodman and David S. Broder, and editorializing about such issues as school prayer and the nomination of Edwin Meese, he aims to hold a daily circulation of 12,000 (larger than that of the Gallup Independent) by dropping the newsstand price from 35 cents to 25 cents and by providing a mixed menu of international, national, and Indian news. Building on his Washington experience, Trahand occasionally calls United Press International and asks it to cover hearings or news conferences of particular interest to Indians.

He does not, however, insist on having an all-Indian staff. ''We hire Anglos, '' he says, because ''we have a hard time finding Navajo writers'' and because ''we have to have quality writing for our Navajo readers.''

Those who read the paper regularly see the changes as a positive step. ''We need that type of contact with the world,'' says Paul Platero, a young Navajo with a PhD in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works on educational issues for the tribe. He sees it as part of a great reawakening. ''The tribe is beginning to realize that there are muscles to be flexed.''

Richard Curley, president of the student body at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, says the paper ''well represents the Navajo point of view,'' and he looks forward to seeing it more often.

And Robert Roessel, director of the Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation, sees it in the larger light of tribal history. ''The Times is coming of age,'' he says, adding that nowadays ''it tells the truth, and it's not afraid to tell the truth.'' He credits the change to the ''restraint'' shown by the current tribal chairman, Peterson Zah, who has actively supported the paper's independence - even when its editors have been critical of his actions. Recalling a recent front-page story about the failure of Mr. Zah to appear at an important meeting on the relocation of Navajos from land claimed by the Hopis, Mr. Roessel says that such a story could never have been printed until recently.

Still to be resolved, however, is a bizarre legal dispute, the nature of which speaks volumes about the political climate surrounding the paper. When Zah took office last October, he separated the paper from direct tribal interference by setting up the semi-autonomous Navajo Times Company and removing its staff from the tribal payroll - only to discover that outgoing chairman Peter MacDonald, in his final week in office, had leased the paper for 25 years to another former editor of the Times, Marshall Tome, for $40,000. Attorneys for Zah quickly obtained an order to restrain Mr. Tome, who is now suing the tribe for $16 million.

Trahant says he is confident that the tribal court (whose decision is expected as this story goes to press) will find against the prior sale.

And if it does not? The editor smiles. All that Tome would get, he says, would be the name and the old equipment that belonged to the paper as of last October. The staff, and the new machinery, will stay with the tribe.

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